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URBAN LIFE

Lox, Stock, and Barrel
Fulton Fish Market's move to the Bronx marks the end of an era

Like a scene out of an old movie, a predawn morning at New York City's Fulton Fish Market is a glimpse into a grittier time—when cities leaned heavily on waterfront businesses and on the tough guys who toiled there. As former market worker Jack Putnam puts it, "This place runs on testosterone, caffeine, and nicotine." But all that old-school attitude can't keep modernization away. After nearly 200 years at the same spot on Manhattan's southeastern waterfront, Fulton Fish Market is moving this month from cobblestone streets in the shadow of skyscrapers to a state-of-the-art facility in the Bronx.
 
"I don't want to move," says Dino Fiorentino, one of about 45 wholesalers occupying the market's brick storefronts and open stalls. But many other vendors here have adopted an attitude of "what's good for the market is good for me."
 
The market's new 430,000-square-foot (40,000-square-meter) structure is right off the Bruckner and Sheridan Expressways and offers conveniences like truck-docking bays and refrigeration systems that will comply with federal food-safety standards. Fulton Fish Market is "going from the 19th to the 21st century in one shot," says Jeff Manzer of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing the relocation.
 
But with this jump into the future, New York is losing some of its past. The fish sellers have been here since 1822, when the city opened a collection of stalls hawking food and merchandise to crowds traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan via the nearby Fulton Ferry. The seafood business grew fast, and by 1831 the fish merchants had moved into their own building. By 1848 the fish market near Fulton Ferry had become the Fulton Fish Market—so big and popular that it continued to expand even when its neighboring food vendors moved across town.
 
Some things haven't changed much over the years. Two South Street buildings still extend right over the river, a vestige of the time when a day's catch was stored directly in the water. But a row of old storefronts lining the street's west side has already become part of the South Street Seaport district's outdoor mall.
 
"It's something we need to do," says seafood wholesaler Anthony Grippa of the move. The city of New York had been trying to convince the fishmongers of that since the 1960s. It finally took a confluence of flagging business, stricter food-industry regulations, and the political will of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani—who had been instrumental in cleaning organized crime out of the market in the 1980s and '90s—to get the ball rolling. It also took a hard look at reality.
 
Fulton Fish Market had run into that roadblock known as progress. Just like Paris's famed Les Halles—which was relocated to a suburban facility with much more space and much less charm—the Manhattan landmark had become an anachronism. Its location was unnecessary: The last regular boat delivery of fish to its East River pier occurred in 1979. These days refrigerated trucks transport the seafood. Of course, its throwback status has been a part of the market's appeal. But, as Arrow Seafood's owner Bob Smith says, "I don't do it for the nostalgia. I do it for the money." Location is of vital importance to the market's businessmen. "If you're a hundred feet from the center of activity, you're not in it," Smith notes. "You have to be where the truck terminus is."
 
Now that's where the Fulton Fish Market will be. And the only reminder of its history in lower Manhattan may be the smell of two centuries of seafood suffused into pavement and brick. Who knows how long that legacy will last.      
 
—Billie Cohen


Web Links

Swimming Upstream: The Last Days of the Fulton Fish Market
www.bobsacha.com/swimming-upstream
View an excerpt from a one-hour documentary about the final days of the Fulton Fish Market, directed by National Geographic photographer Bob Sacha.
 
South Street Seaport Museum
www.southstseaport.org
Want to take a voyage back in time and learn about New York City's maritime past? Log on to this website to get information on the exhibits and educational programs offered by the South Street Seaport Museum, located in a 12 block historic district on the East River's waterfront.
 
New York City Economic Development Corporation
www.newyorkbiz.com
This organization oversees the relocation of the Fulton Fish Market and posts press releases about the progress of the move.
 
Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation
www.huntspointedc.org
Come here to get information on this organization's efforts to transform Hunts Point into a vital, economically active region.
 
Paintings by Naima Rauam
www.artpm.com
Naima Rauam is a professional artist working in New York City who specializes in watercolors of the Fulton Fish Market, South Street Seaport, and New York waterfront.


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Bibliography

Barry, Dan. "That Smell? Fish and Sweat, Fading Into a Sanitized Future." The New York Times, April 3, 2004.
 
Beck, Bruce. The Official Fulton Fish Market Cookbook. Dutton, 1989.
 
Browning, Judith H. New York City: Yesterday & Today. Corsair Publications, 1990.
 
Rosebrock, Ellen Fletcher, and Edmund V. Gillon, Jr. South Street: A Photographic Guide to New York City's Historic Seaport. Dover Publications, 1977.
 
Slanetz, Priscilla Jennings. "A History of the Fulton Fish Market." Log of Mystic Seaport, September 1986.




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